This year's eighth grade students and teachers at SISD (Sweetwater Independent School District) will be reaping the benefits of a major technological shift that will change the educational outlook of the entire district.
Their very own Apple iPad.
The announcement, according to Mike Marlett — the district's Educational Technology Director, opens the door to SISD's 21st Century Digital Learning Initiative. And in order to fully utilize their iPads, SISD will be installing a commercial WiFi network for the entire SMS (Sweetwater Middle School) campus, another huge new addition to the district.
"This program will be the beginning of an unprecedented amount of access to digital resources for Sweetwater students," said Marlett. "Students will be able to access the latest digital content to supplement teacher course work from anywhere on the campus."
Over the past year, the SISD Leadership Team has taken on the challenge given by Superintendent Terry Pittman in studying 21st century education methods — through research and teacher feedback — to determine the best way for students to learn and succeed in their studies.
Marlett praised the superintendent, saying, "Mr. Pittman's vision for Sweetwater classrooms has always included innovation and creativity with an emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving. The iPads will be a tool our teachers will use to realize that vision."
But with a wide selection of tablets, laptops and other similar devices on the market...why choose the iPad?
Marlett noted that all the devices that were looked into offered a number of benefits. However, the district preferred the battery life, mobility, touch inputs and free educational applications that were offered by the Apple product.
Another question that was considered was the grade in which to start the initiative. While all teachers could certainly profit from the technology and any grade level could lead the program off, Marlett stated that several aspects of the WiFi set-up would fit best at the middle school.
The installation of the wireless internet will take place later this summer, which will cover not only the campus but even common areas outside of SMS. Work continues on a plan that would open parts of the campus up after hours or during inclement weather days as well in order for students to have that 24/7 access.
In addition, Marlett shared that the district is considering the inclusion of WiFi hotspots on all district properties so that the iPad initiative can be supported district-wide. Sweetwater High School is slated to be the next campus to obtain the wireless access throughout the campus next school year.
For the students, the plan is for the eighth graders to take their iPads with them throughout their entire high school career. Thus, eighth grade teachers as well as high school teachers will undergo continual, professional development and training for preparation and use of the devices.
"The eighth grade teaching staff will do a great job in integrating this 21st Century technology...[While] we would like to reach every classroom and student today, we will continue to be financially responsible in respects to the implementation," said Marlett.
However, the addition of the iPad to the classroom won't take away the books and papers used once upon a time — though some textbooks are offered digitally, but will be another financial advantage in reducing the amount of paper used within the district. The iPad will also serve as a supplement to textbooks by offering up-to-date, relevant information as well as videos.
"Teachers can even 'flip' their classrooms," Marlett added, "and let students watch lectures at home at their own pace on the iPad, communicate with peers and teachers via online discussions, and then do their 'homework' in the classroom with the help of the instructor."
In addition, the teachers will also be able to determine if the device will be used for every facet of classroom learning or just for the appropriate setting. The initiative will ensure that the best methods will be used for students; the inclusion of the iPad allows for students to make learning mobile no matter when they are.
Before the distribution of the gadget, a required meeting will be offered — on several occasions to accommodate all parents and students — in order for the iPad to be received, which will breakdown the initiative as well as the policies set up by the administration. While the dates will be announced at a later date, the meeting will also be offered during the SMS "Meet the Teacher" night.
Among the discussion at the meeting will be monitoring students' access to sites, damages and/or loss of the iPad and the consequences for breaking the policies. SISD's internet safety program for students will continue with the mobile devices — which highlights site filtering and safety training, along with the district's Acceptable Use Policy that outlines consequences as noted in the student handbooks. (This information can all be found at www.sweetwaterisd.net .)
The district has also gathered information from surrounding districts with similar initiatives to learn about loss rates and fees. Other districts have only seen a 2-4% loss rate; SISD hopes to make that number even smaller by purchasing Otterbox Cases for every single iPad to protect and prevent damages.
Furthermore, a basic warranty plan will be implemented. There will be a $50, non-refundable annual usage and maintenance fee, which covers repair or replacement coverage for the device, battery and up to two incidents of "accidental damage" that each require a $50 deductible.
Parents will also be given time at the meeting to sign all the necessary paperwork as well as determine options for how to pay the required fee, either upfront or by making arrangements.
"We are excited to be able to bring cutting edge technology to the hands of our students," said Marlett. "We recognize that our children are 'digital natives' and learn to a deeper degree with the resources made available to our teachers by products like the iPad."